Human rights are a universal value, yet they can be the most vexed issue in practice. The most recent example is the debate stirred up by the first trip to China by a United Nations human rights chief since 2005. International observers focused on Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang province, where the authorities have been accused of forced sterilisation and mass internment of Uygurs and other Muslim minorities. Beijing said the trip “achieved positive and practical results”. Bachelet said she had unsupervised access to the sources she wanted to meet, including many relevant officials. But United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington remained concerned about China’s efforts to “restrict and manipulate” the visit. This reveals a gulf in expectation, reflected in Bachelet’s remarks at a press conference near the end of her trip. “This visit was not an investigation – detailed, methodical and discreet,” she said. “[It was] an opportunity [for the UN high commissioner] to hold direct discussions with China’s most senior leaders on human rights … with a view to supporting China in fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law.” She said she visited a prison and one of the vocational education and training centres linked to the allegations, which Beijing said were part of a system now discontinued for tackling radicalisation and terrorism. In this regard she raised with the government “the lack of independent judicial oversight of the programme … allegations of the use of force and ill-treatment and reports of restrictions on legitimate religious practices”. Xi tells UN human rights chief China doesn’t need ‘patronising’ lectures At the same time Vice-Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said the accusations were “lies of the century”. This kind of tit-for-tat does nothing to advance human rights in China or anywhere else. At times it must make both sides feel they cannot win. It contrasts with Bachelet’s acknowledgement of China’s achievements in other aspects of human rights, such as alleviation and the eradication of extreme poverty, 10 years ahead of its target date. It would be counterproductive if it discourages China from being open and transparent. Human rights are, after all, an abiding concern of one kind or another everywhere, including the US.